Psychotherapy and Cancer

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Some data suggest that psychotherapy may benefit patients with cancer, but higher-quality research is needed.
Some data suggest that psychotherapy may benefit patients with cancer, but higher-quality research is needed.

Psychotherapy, also called talk therapy, is a type of therapy that helps patients with emotional difficulties or mental illness cope with their issues.1 Numerous types of psychotherapy are practiced, including cognitive behavioral, interpersonal, behavioral, and supportive therapy. This fact sheet includes studies about psychotherapy or psychoeducational therapy, and generally excludes cognitive behavioral therapy.

Generally, psychotherapy has been shown to provide some benefit to approximately 75% of patients. More specifically, studies suggest that psychotherapy may benefit patients with cancer, although most existing studies are of low quality.

Quality of Life

General Quality of Life

Multiple meta-analyses have been conducted evaluating the outcomes of studies that assessed some aspect of quality of life (QoL) among patients with cancer or survivors of cancer, and, overall, these studies showed that psychotherapy may have some benefit.

A Cochrane review of 30 randomized controlled trials (RCTs) of patients with newly diagnosed cancer found no effect of psychosocial interventions (defined as an interpersonal dialogue between the patient and a trained helper) on general QoL or psychological distress as measured by depression or anxiety at 6-month follow-up.2 There was a small improvement, however, in cancer-specific measures of QoL (standardized mean difference [SMD], 0.16; 95% CI, 0.02-0.30) and general psychological distress as indicated by mood measures (SMD, -0.81; 95% CI, -1.44 to -0.18). Psychoeducational and face-to-face, nurse-delivered interventions provided the greatest benefit.

A more recent meta-analysis of 4 trials that evaluated adjunct psychotherapy demonstrated that it improved QoL and coping among patients with cancer, including decreased distress, anxiety, and depression.3 The quality of the trials, however, were deemed to be of poor quality and the authors concluded that the evidence is unsatisfactory and that more well-designed trials were required.

A meta-analysis of 8 RCTs of women with early-stage breast cancer found that psychosocial or psychoeducational support had no effect on global QoL, but psychosocial support improved scores on the Breast Cancer Symptoms subscale.4

A qualitative systematic review of pediatric cancer survivors and their families found that across 33 studies, psychosocial interventions generally provided benefit to patients and their families.5 Most  of the studies included in the analysis found that patients and/or their families experienced improvement in behavior or emotional problems, social skills, anxiety, and depression; however, in several studies, parents reported that their child experienced benefit while the children reported no difference.

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